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Studying UX Online: Advantages, Difficulties, and Best Practices

The Internet is revolutionizing education, and UX education has begun moving online. Students from all over the world can study UX via online courses that provide them with valuable skills needed to work in today’s world of distributed teams. Online education offers a number of advantages to students, instructors, universities, and employers, often allowing students to further their educations while continuing to work full time (Figure 1).

A photo showing a student’s face on a large screen, while other students watch from their seats.
Figure 1. Students in today’s programs can attend classes remotely. Credit: The Academic Technology Center at Bentley University.

However, the field of online education is still relatively new, and there is a widespread perception of online programs as diploma mills. In light of these circumstances, we wanted to examine the current state of online UX education, learn about the advantages and disadvantages of studying UX online, and collect best practices from UX students and instructors.

Defining Online UX Education

What exactly is meant by online UX education? When speaking with people for this article, we encountered a range of online experiences, from formal master’s programs, to single UX classes within programs in a related field, to continuing education resources such as All You Can Learn and We focused primarily on the more formal programs, but even here, there was some variation. For example, Bentley University’s Master of Science Human Factors in Information Design (HFID) is synchronous, and students are expected to attend lectures and participate in class discussions via an audiovisual system facilitated by teaching assistants in each classroom (Figure 2).

A photo showing the computer monitor screen also shown on the large display screen.
Figure 2. A student assistant watches a monitor to be ready to assist remote students. Credit: The Academic Technology Center at Bentley University.

At the other end of the spectrum, Kent State University’s Master of Science in User Experience Design is asynchronous, while DePaul University’s Master of Science in Human-Computer Interaction allows students to either attend lectures synchronously, or listen to recordings of the lectures later on. We spoke with students from all three of these programs, as well as four instructors—two from UX masters programs and two who had taught a UX course as part of a program in a related field. Some students were located in different countries and time zones from those in which the classes were conducted.

Advantages of Studying UX Online

The primary advantage of studying UX online, rather than in a traditional classroom, is the unparalleled flexibility and convenience offered by online programs. While all of the formal programs we looked at are structured around a weekly timeline, students are able to fit their assignments in around the other “large rocks” in their lives, including their jobs, spouses, children, and other responsibilities. Alesha, a recent graduate of Kent State, notes, “I was still my kid’s mom. I was still my husband’s wife. I was still my boss’s employee. I didn’t have to put my life on hold.” Two other students said that although they technically live within commuting distance of Kent State, having to commute to campus one or more times a week, on top of completing the coursework and their other responsibilities, would have made doing the program not feasible for them.

In addition to flexibility and convenience, online programs also provide geographical convenience, opening up a range of possibilities for overseas students and for domestic students who don’t live near a school with an on-campus UX program. “It lets me attend a reputable program without having to move across the country,” says Sara, a new student in the DePaul program. “Having an 11-year-old daughter in middle school, that would be a big upheaval.”

Jennifer, a Bentley alumnus, is even more appreciative of geographical flexibility: “For me specifically it was great because my husband is in the military and I knew I was probably going to end up relocating partway through the program. It gave me the flexibility to take the program no matter where I ended up moving.”

Difficulties and Challenges of Studying UX Online

Along with its advantages, online UX education brings a number of challenges for students. We primarily focused on social challenges, challenges with collaboration, cultural and time zone-related issues, and challenges with software and hardware tools used for class.

Social challenges

One of the primary characteristics of online education is a lack of in-person interaction with instructors and classmates. As Dr. Bill Gribbons, director of the program at Bentley Universty asks, “How do you preserve that sense of sharing and support that occurs in the real world? How do you preserve that in the virtual world?” Similarly, Dr. Fast, who helped build the program at Kent State, notes, “You need to give people the opportunity to bond. You can sometimes learn more from watching someone walk across the room than you can from sending them 12 emails.”

Many of the students we spoke with felt this lack keenly, particularly with respect to instructors. Kaycee says, “Communication with professors is never done in person, so you lose a little bit of that interaction with professors. For my first master’s, I felt close to them; we still email and talk; but I don’t know any of my professors from my UX program. I have no connection to them. I wouldn’t ever email them and see how they’re doing, whereas in my first master’s, I felt very connected to them, we worked together on a daily basis, so I do feel like I missed that connection.”

However, lack of face-to-face interaction did not always result in students feeling disconnected. Students in Dr. Janice Redish’s class felt so close that one West Coast student arranged to meet a fellow classmate while on a business trip to the East Coast. Dr. Redish herself had lunch with three of her students, as well as one of her co instructors, while on a trip to Vancouver. She says, “I think that happened because there was so much peer review interaction as well as instructor interaction during the course, even though it was entirely asynchronous.” Other students feel that they have gained mentors; one even said that she had made lifelong friends from her UX program.

There was also a range of reactions to the feeling of lack of connectedness. One Kent State student felt that it was partially her own doing, stating, “I’m somewhat of an introvert, so if I made more of an effort to reach out, who knows? But maybe we’re just a class of introverts.” Jennifer from Bentley adds,  “When I talk to a lot of my coworkers who have done graduate programs online, my program seemed a lot less painful with just as much knowledge, and had professors which—while we didn’t actually connect—I actually liked.”

Cultural and time zone-related challenges

Online UX classes have diversity in age, gender, location (both within and outside the U.S.), and levels of technical sophistication and professional experience. The programs we looked at include students ranging in age from early 20s to early 50s, and approximately equal numbers of men and women.

Students overwhelmingly viewed geographical diversity as a positive aspect of online courses. For example, Alesha from Kent State was pleased that the geographic makeup of her classes allowed her to collaborate with people from different subcultures within the U.S., and also provided her with unexpected insight into how people from different regions interacted with a particular technology one of her class groups was researching.

However, differences in technical sophistication levels were seen as more of a challenge, given online students’ reliance on computer-based communication systems. This variance can be frustrating for those with more, or less, technical experience. One alumna with greater technical sophistication stated, “With that technical divide, we had to show a few people how to sign up for a Google account.  That was scary—having to walk someone through how to set up a Gmail account and use some of those tools—because to me they’re very intuitive.” At the other end of the spectrum, lack of confidence in one’s own technical skills can present a psychological hurdle for some students, particularly in hybrid classes. As one put it, “I guess the most difficult part was the technology; as well as being an enabler, it was also a barrier. My anxiety level for the first couple of classes was just tremendous, thinking, ‘Am I going to be able to use the audiovisual software? Am I going to screw up? And do it publicly?’”

In addition to this disparity in technical sophistication, there was also some variation in professional experience. Levels ranged from very low—students entering graduate programs straight from undergrad or from completely different fields—to those who had worked in the field before starting graduate school. A couple of students with no prior experience in UX felt that being in class with more experienced people was intimidating at first.

Surprisingly, time zones presented few issues for the students we spoke with from the U.S. Those who did cite time-related issues referred to difficulties in arranging group meetings because of differing schedules among group members. For example, parents with full-time jobs were only available later in the evenings and on weekends, while students with part-time jobs preferred to meet during the day and keep their weekends free.

Collaborative tool challenges

As described above, differing levels of technological expertise within an online classroom can pose challenges for students. The practice of UX is inherently collaborative, and effective use of online tools is essential to any seamless collaboration between remotely located individuals. In addition, the tools themselves can cause issues with collaboration.

For example, Blackboard is frequently used as a class tool that many students are satisfied with. “I was never unable to accomplish what I needed to do,” says Laura P. from Kent State. “It wasn’t missing features that I needed; the features it has could be executed a little better, but I never found myself having to work around a missing feature or wishing it had features that it didn’t have.”  Another student who had used a similar online class tool appreciated Blackboard for its lack of spam and its ability to manage all of her classes in one place.

However, a number of students and instructors expressed extreme dissatisfaction with the tool. One instructor says, “I hate Blackboard! I find it to be one of the worst pieces of software I’ve ever used. I get lost, and I think, ‘I design this stuff and I can’t figure it out’.”

While Blackboard is a common tool for collaboration, it is not the only one.  Some programs use in-house tools, and students are frequently left to their own devices to choose collaboration solutions that work for them. Since these tools, such as Skype or Google Hangouts, are not necessarily sanctioned or supported by the universities, technology frustrations  can lead to further feelings of disconnection between fellow students or between students and instructors. This is particularly true for online students who rely on these tools for communicate “live”. When they don’t function properly and are not supported, students feel a void in this very important means of communication.

Best Practices

The students and instructors we spoke with had a number of suggestions for best practices, and we were able to glean some from our own experiences as well.

For students

Online study is not for everyone; in speaking with students and instructors, there are some clear characteristics that make for successful online students.. Dr. Gribbons states, “I think online students know they have to be on top of their game. A successful online student is one who is extremely focused, time and project management oriented, takes advantage of every opportunity for support and feedback, and errs on the side of caution in asking for help; as a result, their performance is exceptional.”

In addition, successful online students tend to be proactive in making contact with instructors and take the initiative in participating in additional activities like professional conferences and networking. Dr. Gribbons says, “When I have office hours, even though only about a third of our students are online, more than half my office hour appointments are online students—and not because they’re struggling more—it’s because they want to be engaged.” An alumni from one of the programs states, “At the beginning of each class I reached out and connected one-on-one with the professor so that then when I had a question later on in the course, he or she knew that I wasn’t some last-minute floundering newbie going, ‘Help!’ So I made a personal and professional connection with every professor at the beginning of the class, and that helped; when I needed answers, I got them quickly.”

For programs

A number of best practices for programs emerged from our discussions with online students and instructors. Based on their input, we offer the following recommendations:

  • Limit program and class size. Bentley and Kent State both limit their programs to approximately 150 students, and cap class size at 25-35 students. Institutions with asynchronous programs in particular may be tempted to increase revenue by admitting more students and increasing class size, but Dr. Gribbons feels that, “what is lost is learning for the students, and meaningful engagement.”
  • Consider adopting a cohort model to some extent, to foster connection between students from one class to the next.
  • Provide at least a few days of in-person interaction, if possible. Failing that, encourage students and instructors to interact face-to-face via collaboration tools such as Google Hangouts. Dr. Gribbons attributes the engagement his online students feel, in part, to Boot Camp, a one-week residential program that all remote students must complete. One Kent State graduate wishes her program had included an in-person component.  “Once the head of the department mentioned that he wished there would be an optional weekend where everyone could come to Kent; that would have been great.”
  • Provide synchronous interaction when possible. Synchronous activity can be invaluable in, as Dr. Gribbons says, “giving connection to a user community”  and creating a sense of connection between classmates and instructor. It can also be helpful for instructors to check whether students understand concepts. One instructor in an asynchronous program ended up scheduling weekly calls with her students because several of them were having to redo their class work.
  • Design a consistent weekly model for assignment due dates for asynchronous classes.
  • Online collaboration tools must be improved. As one of the instructors noted, classroom tools for design, in particular, are not as good as corporate tools.
  • Train students in the use of classroom and collaboration tools. A Bentley student praised her program’s synchronous introduction to the audiovisual system, and an instructor at another institution said she thought her program should consider “a foundational program where the students learn to use Google Hangouts so you don’t have to spend class time teaching them..”
  • Train instructors in the use of online teaching techniques and the use of technology for teaching online.  Kent State does this by flying new adjunct instructors to the university to do a 2-3 day intensive workshop on course design and learning how to use the tools.
  • When direct interaction is not feasible, encourage instructors to create explanatory videos and provide feedback via video. Kent State has adopted such a model.
  • Foster education about, and empathy for, online students among instructors and on-site students. One Bentley alumni succinctly expressed a sentiment shared by other students and instructors: “Room for improvement would probably be everyone learning best practices for online students. Everyone— including online students, including the professor, and including the students in the room.”

This article only begins to scratch the surface of studying UX online. Today’s programs are producing effective UX professionals. However, as technology improves, and institutions, instructors, and students work to address the challenges involved in online learning, studying UX online will hopefully become an even smoother and more effective experience.


Tools for Study Online

A number of collaboration and UX tools were mentioned in the course of our conversations. These include:

General Collaboration Tools

Google+ Groups
Google Drive/Docs
Google Hangouts

UX-specific Tools

Optimal Workshop